A federal appeals court on Friday rejected James “Whitey” Bulger’s claim that his trial was a “sham,” ruling that his conviction for participating in 11 murders while running a sprawling criminal enterprise for decades was just and shall stand.
In a 49-page opinion, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit wrote, “Bulger got a fair trial and none of the complained-of conduct on the court or government’s part warrant reversal of his conviction.”
The ruling is a blow to the 86-year-old Bulger, who is serving two life sentences at a federal penitentiary in Florida and would have been not guilty in the eyes of the law if he died before his appeal had been decided.
The three-judge panel unanimously rejected Bulger’s claim that the trial judge violated his constitutional rights by refusing to let him tell jurors that a now-deceased federal prosecutor had promised him immunity decades ago for all of his crimes, including murder.
The appeals court concluded that US District Judge Denise Casper, who presided over the trial, correctly ruled that the question of whether Bulger had immunity was for the judge to resolve before the case went to trial.
“Bulger provided no evidentiary support, written or otherwise, for this claim and declined the court’s invitation for an evidentiary hearing,” wrote Circuit Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, who authored the appeals court’s opinion.
The notorious former South Boston gangster failed to support his “rank assertions” that Jeremiah O’Sullivan, former head of the New England Organized Crime Strike Force, gave him immunity, the court found. O’Sullivan died in 2009.
“Instead the trial judge was left with a broad, bald assertion from defense counsel lacking any particularized details that Bulger entered into an immunity agreement with O’Sullivan sometime prior to 1984, which barred Bulger’s federal prosecution in the District of Massachusetts,” the appeals court found.
Bulger, who did not testify, “was not actually barred from taking the stand to offer pertinent and admissible testimony, and there is no constitutional right to introduce irrelevant evidence,” the appeals court ruled.
A federal jury in Boston found Bulger guilty in 2013 of participating in 11 of 19 murders he was accused of during the 1970s and 1980s. He was acquitted of seven slayings and jurors were unable to reach a verdict on whether he strangled 26-year-old Debra Davis in 1981.
Patricia Donahue, whose husband Michael was shot to death by Bulger in 1982 while giving a ride home to a man the gangster was targeting, learned of the appellate ruling from a Globe reporter on Friday night.
“That’s awesome,” Donahue said. “I couldn’t be happier. I think it’s absolutely wonderful.”
Asked if the decision provided a sense of closure, Donahue said, “it does kind of let you get on with your life without having to have that hang over you. It’s about time. It’s been a long time, and now there won’t be anymore dragging it out. I think that’s great news. It couldn’t happen to a better person.”
Bulger’s lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment.
His brother, former Senate President William M. Bulger, 82, said when reached by phone on Friday night that he had not heard the conviction had been upheld.
“I have no comment,” he said.
Brian T. Kelly, part of the team that prosecuted Bulger and now a lawyer at Nixon Peabody, said, “It’s great news because it means that now he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison where he belongs.”
Kelly added that while Bulger has the option to seek a review before the Supreme Court, the chances of the high court agreeing to hear the case lie “somewhere between slim and none.”
The former prosecutor also sounded an optimistic note when asked if he felt the Bulger saga had spurred any reforms in federal law enforcement.
“I certainly think that the decades-long investigation with multiple prosecutions, including this one, helped expose some serious public corruption,” Kelly said. “And it led to some significant reforms, and one can only hope something like this never happens again.”